I first started watching NBA basketball in the 90s, which meant watching a boring league that always seemed to end with a stacked Bulls team winning yet another championship. Certainly there was individual greatness on that team – and at least one supporting player who probably doesn’t get the full credit he deserves – but, as a fan of small-market teams, it didn’t make for entertaining viewing. Once Jordan retired, the San Antonio Spurs captured a title in a lockout-shortened season, and I thought to myself: maybe the league will get interesting now.
Except it didn’t, because the Lakers emerged. Led by the overall dominance of Shaquille O’Neal and strong support from Kobe Bryant and several key role players (which sometimes were alleged to include the officiating crews), the Lakers proceeded to win three consecutive championships from 2000 to 2002, bouncing small-market teams in Portland, Indiana, Sacramento, San Antonio, and New Jersey in the process. Some Lakers wins – especially Game 7 against the 2000 Blazers and Game 6 against the 2002 Kings – remain controversial due to a large number of questionable foul calls benefitting the Lakers that some attribute to league favoritism (to be fair, neither game quite matched the shenanigans from Games 3 – 6 of the 2006 Mavs – Heat Finals).
Though the 2003 championship eluded the Lakers (possibly due to an early injury to Shaq that prevented the Lakers from getting home-court advantage in the playoffs), the Lakers entered the 2003 – 2004 season as runaway favorites after adding future Hall of Famers Karl Malone and Gary Payton. Though the team suffered through injuries, on-court chemistry issues, feuding between players, and a criminal case against Kobe Bryant, after Derek Fisher hit a miracle game winner in the penultimate game against the Spurs in the Western Conference Semifinals, the team seemed destined to march straight ahead to another championship. They won the Western Conference Finals easily, and every talking head said they were about to steamroll the Pistons in a likely sweep in the Finals.
Except that isn’t what happened. My inner sadist forces me to watch every single NBA Finals game (including all four Cavaliers – Warriors abominations in full), and I remember watching that first game of the 2004 Finals and how quickly it became apparent that the Lakers had no answers for the Detroit defense. The Lakers – a team that included four Hall of Famers in O’Neal, Bryant, Malone, and Payton – was losing to a team of league journeymen, castoffs, weirdos, and misfits that didn’t include a single certain Hall of Famer. Several players had bounced around teams for years. The leading scorer wore a plastic mask during games. And the Pistons’ counterpart to Shaq – one of the most dominant interior scorers in league history – was perhaps one of the few players in NBA history I’d be confident against in a jump shot contest.
And that group of league journeymen, castoffs, weirdos, and misfits – along with Rasheed Wallace – walloped that super-hyped , superstar-filled team from Los Angeles far worse than the final score indicated.
After a loss in the first game, a media storm of talking heads thundered: what’s wrong with the Lakers? The team was distracted: Shaq was worried about his contract while Kobe was dealing with legal troubles. Shaq and Kobe couldn’t – or perhaps wouldn’t – play together. Key guys were injured. No one was listening to Phil Jackson.
Though it looked like things might get back on track after a Lakers overtime victory in Game 2, the first game in Detroit – in which the Lakers set a franchise low for points scored in a playoff game – seemingly guaranteed a series win for the Pistons. As Detroit won the title, the Lakers looked like a shell of a team – one that didn’t even belong in the playoffs, much less the Finals.
The Lakers – super-hype, superstars, and all – had completely fallen apart. And I loved every second of it.
It’s hard to say what makes it so fun to watch the Lakers fail. Perhaps the grandiose narrative they’ve created around the organization that arrogantly promises continuous success and regular championships and all the best free agents has something to do with it (in some ways, their braggadocio isn’t dissimilar from the rhetorical style of a certain politician with a penchant for hyperbole). The team – and its fanbase – feel entitled to continuous championships, and it boasts about how, even in lean years, the franchise always sits on the cusp of yet another run at the league title.
And perhaps it has something to do with the fact that those boisterous claims are at least partially grounded in reality. The Lakers are often able to attract top talent whenever it becomes available, as the franchise enjoys numerous advantages that other teams can only dream of. Their location offers top endorsement deals, and the proximity to Hollywood offers celebrity status that even New York can’t match. They play in a market with an extremely lucrative local TV deal, ensuring that team owners don’t have to skimp on amenities, staff, or personnel. They enjoy tremendous fan support nationally, giving players even greater opportunity for endorsement deals and celebrity status.
And the disadvantages? You could perhaps say that high state income taxes in California could be a disincentive to some players, but star players can almost certainly make that money back from more lucrative endorsements available in the state. The only limiting factor to the Lakers’ pitch to free agents has to do with the current state of the franchise, and the Lakers are almost always sitting on the precipice of greatness if they’re not already there.
But even with those advantages it holds over every other team – advantages of endorsement possibilities, celebrity status, finances, fan support – their first team of the post-Shaq era headed to the lottery, and while a Kobe-Pau Gasol pairing netted two championships, they haven’t put together a legitimate contender since. A superteam consisting of Kobe, Dwight Howard, and Steve Nash failed spectacularly, as Howard started a trend of feuding with teammates, Nash couldn’t stay healthy, and Kobe tore his ACL. Since that injury, the Lakers have been wandering in the desert: through the past six seasons, the Lakers have lost more games than any other NBA franchise in the same span.
And really the Lakers have never been as successful as they might expect given the many advantages they have. Yes, the team has won 16 championships, but five of those were won in Minneapolis. The Wilt Chamberlain team – a team that included a huge cast of future legends – only managed to win a single title. While the 80s team dominated, it felt like they should have won more titles than they did. Ditto for the Shaq-Kobe team, which probably should have overcome obstacles in both 2003 and 2004. The franchise seemingly had no direction in the immediate aftermath of both the post-Magic and post-Kobe eras in which the front office seemed determined to put together teams that couldn’t compete.
And that’s not even getting into championships they won under questionable circumstances. I’ve already mentioned the 2002 Kings – Lakers series, which featured major disparities in fouls and free throws and is one of the most infamous in recent memory due to the Kings’ popularity (that must be such a strange sentence to read for anyone who didn’t watch basketball back in the early aughts). I’ve also mentioned the 2000 Blazers – Lakers series, which isn’t as controversial nationally due to the Blazers’ unpopularity (this was the beginning of the JailBlazers era), but in many ways the disparity in fouls was more egregious than the one in the Kings series. And in the 1988 Finals against the Pistons, the Lakers forced a Game 7 on Kareem’s go-ahead free throws that were awarded on one of the six out of roughly eleventy billion plays on which Bill Laimbeer didn’t commit a foul in his NBA career.
As it turns out, a competent front office can run circles around the piles of money and marketing opportunities and amenities offered by large-market teams. Some of this is the result of the league’s salary cap, which prevents big-market teams from using the full might of their financial advantage and benefits teams that make smart decisions on personnel acquisition and player development. The Spurs have made it to the playoffs for 22 consecutive seasons and are the winningest franchise by regular season win percentage in league history. Some of that is due to luck – getting top draft picks in years where David Robinson and Tim Duncan were available certainly helps – but the Spurs have also been excellent at finding quality players – and even a few allstars – outside the draft lottery. While the Lakers and Celtics are just behind the Spurs in terms of winning percentage, the top of the list is dominated by small-market teams: Oklahoma City, Utah, Portland, and Phoenix (yes, at one time there was competent management in Phoenix). Like the Spurs, these franchises have often excelled at player development and personnel evaluation (and some of them have been pretty fortunate in the draft, too).
In short, when you watch the Lakers fail, you watch them fail knowing that they had every single advantage and yet were so incompetent that they still couldn’t put together a successful team because, in the world of professional sports, it turns out that a talented group of individuals that makes good decisions can easily overcome monetary disadvantages. You only wish society itself could be that fair (that the NBA might provide a more level playing field in regards to the benefits of economic advantage than does society at large might be one of the more depressing statements I’ve made on this blog).
This brings us to the most recent Lakers team to underwhelm in the face of sky-high expectations. When LeBron James did what everybody said he was going to do for months (or perhaps years) and signed with the Lakers, a narrative quickly emerged: the Lakers won’t win a championship this year, but only because of the Warriors. The expectation was that the Lakers would easily obtain a top seed in the Western Conference and come up short against the Warriors in the Conference Finals. LeBron was too good, the young talent was developing, and the Lakers would certainly find a way to add another star to the group after shedding payroll. And after the 2018 – 2019 season, Kevin Durant would leave the Warriors, giving the Lakers a clear path to yet another championship.
The first sign of trouble was that the second star never came early in the offseason. The Spurs refused to trade Kawhi to the Lakers despite his desire to get traded there, basically saying that that highly touted young talent wasn’t good enough in a trade (a theme that would have disastrous consequences later in the season). Paul George, after all but taking out ads to tell the Pacers he planned on signing with his hometown Lakers a year earlier, re-signed with the Thunder. For a team that sees itself as the premier destination for players – and one that promised the prospect of playing next to the greatest player on the planet – to say that the inability to land a star in the offseason was a disappointment is quite the understatement.
Lakers front office bosses Magic Johnson and Rob Pelinka then decided they couldn’t get a star in the offseason, which, given the circumstances, was a fairly reasonable conclusion. They then proceeded to throw reason out the window with a group of signings that utterly beguiled basically everyone who had ever watched a game of basketball, surrounding James with a crew of aging veterans that couldn’t shoot and needed the ball in their hands to be effective. Apparently while the front office liked putting the ball in the hands of the teams talented young core, they liked putting it in the hands of Lance Stephenson and Rajon Rondo better, and they thought the key to creating space for LeBron to operate in the paint involved replacing floor-spacing big man Brook Lopez with Shaqtin’ a Fool mainstay JaVale McGee.
The general narrative to the Lakers 2018 – 2019 season is as follows: after a rocky start, the team found its identity behind a strong defense that created transition opportunities for easy baskets. The team started winning, moving up to fourth in the conference after a dominant Christmas day win over the Warriors. However, LeBron suffered a groin injury in that game, and the Lakers started losing without the greatest player in the game. Further injuries decimated the team, particularly an ankle injury to Lonzo Ball, whose ability as a playmaker and perimeter defender caused the Lakers to collapse on both ends of the court. As the All-Star Game approached, the team then tried to trade for Anthony Davis, who had demanded a trade from the New Orleans Pelicans and listed the Lakers as a preferred destination. Rumors swirled, with headlines outlining that the Lakers were ready to trade every player not named LeBron James to land Davis. Luke Walton was incapable of rallying the team (and a condescending pep talk from Magic did nothing to help), and a group of apathetic players started losing badly. LeBron reentered the lineup with the playoffs still a distinct possibility, and a victory against the Rockets seemed to signal that the team could turn things around. A losing streak followed – one that caused even Carmelo Anthony to lose interest in joining the Lakers – and the Lakers quickly realized they weren’t going to make it to the postseason.
Many pundits attribute the lost Lakers season to injuries, chemistry issues, Luke Walton, pointing out that the Lakers were fourth in the West before LeBron went down on Christmas with an injury, before team morale plummeted during the Anthony Davis trade saga, before Luke Walton lost the respect of the team. They had just come off a dominant victory over the Warriors that showed they could compete against the best the league had to offer.
Personally, I think the Lakers were always doomed. People are reading way too much into that Christmas victory against the Warriors – several teams, including some pretty awful ones, have blown out the Warriors this season – and most ignored the fact that the Lakers faced an easier schedule in 2018 than they would in 2019. While I think it’s possible that the Lakers could have made the postseason had LeBron not gone down with an injury, I’m not convinced it’s a certainty, especially given how much of the Lakers collapse came on the defensive end, an area of the game in which LeBron hasn’t given much effort since Erik Spoelstra was his coach.
Regardless, the Lakers have now officially been eliminated from postseason contention. There are two stories wrapped up in this failed Lakers season. One involves a hyped, flawed team that was seemingly propelled to success through sheer arrogance burst into flames and collapsed when it became apparent that the team just wasn’t good enough.
The other story involves LeBron coming to terms with his basketball mortality. Following a Lakers loss to the Clippers that all but sealed the Lakers’ trip to the lottery, I looked at a photo from the game and saw James looking on from the bench, and it struck me how old he looked in that moment. LeBron remains a dominant player, but it’s hard to know how much longer he can continue to impact the game at a high level. He missed more games due to injury this season than he has in any season in his career, and the risk of injury will only increase as he gets older. Each injury also carries the risk that it might be one he can never fully recover from. Chris Paul had an excellent inaugural season in Houston, but after suffering yet another hamstring injury in the playoffs, he hasn’t looked like the same player. Kawhi Leonard – a player who is several years younger than James – hasn’t quite regained the form he had prior to his quad injury (or pseudo-injury, depending on your sources).
And LeBron knows that he was brought to Los Angeles to win. While his personal legacy is secure, James knows that the case against his overall legacy against Jordan’s is the lack of championships. There’s also the burden of playing for a franchise that feels entitled to championships. Stars don’t get brought to Los Angeles to put up stats; they get brought to Los Angeles to win titles. Wilt did it (though perhaps not in the volume that was expected). Kareem did it. Shaq did it. LeBron was supposed to do it, too, but it’s clear that LeBron can’t do it by himself. He needs help, and he needs it soon, as he only has a few seasons left to plausibly close the championship gap with Jordan.
There are a lot of reasons to root for LeBron in all this. He’s active in his community, funding a public elementary school, numerous scholarships, and a variety of other education and sports programs. He’s politically involved and uses his voice to lend support to a variety of issues (and none of those issues involve his personal taxes). The closest thing he’s had to an off-court scandal involves sending DMs to Instagram models. All in all, he’s been a great citizen off the court.
There are reasons to root against LeBron, too, and strangely, they all involve things on – or at least on the periphery – of the court. James has clashed with coaches and has lobbied for – and has had success in instigating – midseason coaching changes (one unsuccessful attempt is perhaps the only suggestion of a coaching change that Pat Riley has ever deemed unwarranted). He seemingly freezes out teammates that make mistakes or don’t play his preferred style. He’s passive-aggressive, using the media to criticize teammates, coaches, and front offices. He has disrespected stars on opposing teams. And – perhaps most infamously – he participated in a vanity television special broadcast in prime time to announce his intent to “take [his] talents to South Beach” and followed it up with a speech promising an absurd number of championships during his introduction with the Heat.
That said, these issues come down to one major flaw: LeBron James is arrogant, which really doesn’t separate him from most stars at the highest levels of professional sports, and it certainly doesn’t distinguish him from Jordan, who infamously used his Hall of Fame speech to apologize to his children for his fame and to settle decades-old scores with former executives, coaches, teammates, and opponents. Considering that arrogance is hardly a unique trait in the world of sports, I want to root for LeBron in all this. When I saw that photo of him from the Clippers game, though, I thought I saw a realization that he knew he was going to come up short – both in the title count with Jordan and in the debate about which player is superior. He knows he needs at least two more titles to make his case for the latter with most league observers. I think he also knows he’s not going to get there. In watching him weigh his impending basketball legacy and mortality, it almost makes me feel bad for him.
Almost is the key word here, because it’s still the Lakers. And while they’re losing, I’m loving every second of it.